Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A New Version of the Identity Theory?

I'm reading Schiffer's Remnants of Meaning and its gotten me thinking about most (all?) physicalists' demand that mentalistic talk, and especially mentalistic ontology, needs to be reduced to physical talk and ontology somehow or other. My intuition is that most* mentalistic talk and ontology is itself physical in nature, and not because type-type or token-token or any such identity theory is true. I think my intuition is to accept the two premises of the following argument. I've never seen this before, but it's reminiscent of some of the discussion in Stoljar's "Two Conceptions of the Physical."

(1) For all x, if x is introduced to explain the overt physical behavior of paradigmatically physical objects, then x is a physical object.

(2) The special ontological commitments of cognitive science (mental representations, information processing mechanisms, etc.) are introduced to explain the overt physical behavior** of animals' bodies.

Therefore, (3) The special ontological commitments of cognitive science are physical objects.

I think the argument is also sound if we replace both occurrences of "special ontological commitments" with "novel linguistic forms (e.g. relations to mental representations)" and "physical objects" with something like "physicalistic linguistic form."

I want to call this an identity theory (maybe a bit cheekily) because (3) is, as far as I can tell, just what all identity theories have in common. It would be a new version because it is an identity theory no matter whether or how the posits and theorems of cognitive science are identical to various paradigmatic objects and theorems in and about the body.

Perhaps some won't like (3) because the posits of cognitive science lack spatial location, and aren't physical for that reason. I myself am willing to give up the intuition that something has to have a spatial location in order to be a physical object. If I weren't so willing, I would note that, as far as I can tell, nothing is lost by stipulating that these posits are located diffusely throughout the body.

Seriously, is this totally undefensible for reasons I can't see?
* - I tend to think phenomenal consciousness is fundamentally different. Let's restrict "mentalistic talk" and "mentalistic ontology" to the theory and ontology of cognitive science, narrowly construed.
** - Where "overt physical behavior" is taken to include some number of physiological states.

Monday, December 10, 2007

A Problem for Frequentists?

I don’t know much about the philosophy of probability yet, but I wanted to throw an objection to the frequentist interpretation out there and see whether it sticks. Consider a pair of propositions p and q. From the dawn of time until 10,000 C.E., p is true 99 out of every 100 times q is true. Subsequently, p is true 1 out of every 100 times q is true. Suppose that q turns out to be true only some finite number of times into the future, but on many occasions for many trillions of years after 10,000 C.E. Let m be the number of times q turns out to be true in the whole history of the universe before 10,000 C.E., and n be the number of times q is true after 10,000 C.E. On the frequentist interpretation, I think P(p | q) = .99*[m / (m + n)] + .01*[n / (m + n)]. This number will, evidently, be quite lower than .99; if n is great enough, the frequentist’s value for P(p | q) will approach .01. But wouldn’t it be extremely counterintuitive, long before 10,000 C.E., to say that P(p | q) is far below .99, even approaching .01? After all, p follows on q nearly all the time and will for another 7,993 or so years. So it seems that the frequentist interpretation yields the wrong results in this case.

Perhaps my intuition here is that statements like this about the probability of untensed propositions are themselves tensed. If this intuition is commonly shared, then a frequentist interpretation of "P(p | q)" should refer to something like the number of times at which p is true divided by the number of times q is true for some length of time before and after the present moment. But then the frequentist needs to say something about why this length of time should be of any particular size. I have some ideas about what she can say, but I'm having trouble expressing them precisely, so I'll save them for another post.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Dealing with Death

I am sympathetic to the view that appreciation for the heroic or noble or dignified quality in simultaneously confronting one’s own death and embracing life is a good motivator for dealing with death. But it occurred to me last night that what it is, according to this view, I am supposed to appreciate is not as clear as I would like. I would like to clarify this view here.

Embracing life is clear enough. One embraces life if one values the ephemeral people, experiences, objects, and states of affairs that constitute life. I think, in this sense, most people who do not firmly believe in an afterlife do embrace life. I think, in this sense, I embrace life.

Embracing life is not, on its own, a way of confronting or dealing with mortality, however. By “dealing with mortality,” I do not mean merely not encountering one’s fear of one’s own or others’ death, nor do I mean preparing for the material well-being of others after one’s own or others’ death. I can’t deal with mortality by never thinking of what is terrifying in death, and I can’t deal with mortality by buying life insurance. The metaphor of “looking into the abyss” is helpful. Whether there is little or nothing to “see” in the prospect of imminent death, one who looks into the abyss can, at will, “look at” all there is to see in its every facet. You can deal with death to the extent that you can contemplate all aspects of death: the phenomenology of the various ways of dying – the feeling of drowning, the physical helplessness of being murdered, the mental helplessness of the progression of dementia or Alzheimer’s; the misfortune of others in your absence; the annihilation of the memories and experience you continue to accumulate; the abortion of your life’s ongoing projects. One can deal with mortality (one’s own or others’) when there is nothing about death that one cannot, at will, look at – i.e., bring to mind, reason with, meditate on, believe – indefinitely. On this view, belief in an afterlife is a way of dealing with mortality, if it is, because the believer in the afterlife can think of every aspect of death, as long as she accompanies it with the thought of eternal reward. One way of not dealing with death is to busy oneself with other thoughts or activities when any particularly unsavory thought of death occurs.

Why deal with death, and not simply avoid it? I think there actually aren’t too many reasons, which makes it important to weigh those we have as carefully as we can. If one’s failure to deal with death is of a certain sort, perhaps it will lead you to make irrationally those decisions that aspects of mortality have a rational bearing on. These might be decisions about how to reach your goals, whether to purchase life insurance, or whether to take the interesting-looking drugs in front of you. The value of honesty with oneself is a loftier big reason to deal with death. The other lofty one, I think, is the view that we began this post with. If dealing with death – or, better, “confronting” death in the sense of actually, at a single moment surveying what apparent facts there are to survey in regards to one’s own death – and embracing life at the same time strikes you as a heroic, noble, or exceptionally dignified thing to do, then this itself is a reason to deal with or confront death. I am probably not the only person who sometimes finds the prospects of heroism, nobility, or extreme dignity more motivating than the prospect of heightened honesty with oneself or more rational decision-making.